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Researcher of the Month

June 2021

Vicken KhazarVicken Khazar

Major: Biology, Class of 2022

Research Mentor:  Dr. Patrick Hearing, Microbiology & Immunology

Vicken Khazar , a biology major who conducts research in the laboratory of Dr. Patrick Hearing in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology, advocates getting involved in research: “Research is a really nice step away from being in class; it brings a lot of diversity to your educational experience. …I always had a general but persistent curiosity about how the world works, and research is one of the best ways to fulfill that. For anyone that has an interest in science, asking questions, and designing experiments to test ideas, I really recommend it. It has also been an incredibly fun, yet humbling experience.“

Recently, Vicken was one of two URECA Summer program applicants to be awarded the Chhabra-URECA Fellowship, an award that provides funding for summer research and recognizes students with a passion for research. Vicken looks forward to dedicating this summer to full-time work on “Understanding the Role of the SPRTN Metalloprotease in the Adenovirus DNA Damage Response.”

On campus, Vicken has served as a Teaching Assistant for General Chemistry I and II, Human Social and Sexual Evolution, Organic Chemistry I, and Microbiology. He has also been active as President of Watsi Stony Brook, a nonprofit student organization dedicated to global healthcare issues; and is a Red Watch Band Care Team Member with the Center for Prevention and Outreach. Since 2018, Vicken has also been involved as an Emergency Transporter/Informatics Volunteer at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, and a Medical Assistant/Scribe at LI Urgent Care. Some of Vicken’s hobbies include chess, basketball, reading novels and research articles, and occasional videogaming. He is a graduate of Deer Park HS and is a first-generation college student. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director. 

The Interview:

Karen : How did you first get involved in in research at Stony Brook?

Vicken: My first real research experience began when I joined the Hearing Lab in the fall semester of my sophomore year. Throughout high school and early college, I always enjoyed reading research papers, and I really enjoy general scientific investigation. So in addition to learning about the findings of many past experiments in class, I wanted to experience what happens behind the scenes, where the questions are asked, experiments are designed, and discoveries are ultimately made (or not). That was initially my motivation for joining a lab and how I first got my foot in the door.

I always knew that I liked immunology; the immune system, and its potential pathologies, is one of the most diverse, complex and capable systems in the body. In reading about the work of various biology labs, I learned about the Hearing Lab which specifically works on adenovirus. And I thought “Okay, this is a pretty good fit.” I really wanted to get exposed to a lab that would offer diverse approaches (gene editing, clinical trials), and after talking with Dr. Hearing for the first time, it was sort of like closing a deal. Working with Dr. Hearing, I was able to develop my own independent project that I have been working on ever since.

What is your research about?

Our lab focuses on human adenovirus (Ad) — studying the mechanisms by which the cellular response can successfully nullify the effects of Ad infection. Ad most severely and commonly affects infants, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals for their lack of an adequate antiviral response.The Ad genome is a linear, double-stranded DNA molecule with a covalently attached terminal protein (T); it is sensed by the cell as a dsDNA break as well as a DNA-protein adduct. As a result, Ad has evolved various methods of suppressing the cell’s DNA damage response (DDR), making it extremely difficult to eradicate the virus. One of the cell’s proposed antiviral responses comes in the form of SPRTN. Specifically, SPRTN is a metalloprotease that cleaves DNA-protein adducts. Those who maintain a deficiency in SPRTN are susceptible to premature ageing, liver cancer, and minor-to-severe gastrointestinal complications. So for my project, I want to understand if SPRTN will overcome the effects of viral proteins such as E4ORF3/6, synthesized by Ad, and successfully cleave these T-proteins from the virus genome. If so, then the findings will provide great insight on virus-host interactions and their link to various illnesses.

What has been most unexpected aspect of doing research?

The one thing that was the most surprising when I joined, and this is common with first-time fellow researchers I have spoken to, is that you get this sense of humility, or a sense of humbling.  What we are used to hearing about in the classroom are the success stories, the results of all the great experiments with favorable ad conclusive results. And so naturally, we do not hear about the thousands and thousands of times where experiments just go wrong or do not provide fruitful results. So as a beginner, you come into the lab with expectations that you are going to have great results early on, make novel discoveries and publish works, etc. And when you finally begin your work in the lab, you find that there are all these problems you didn't imagine could happen: you add the wrong sample or forget to add a component to a solution, use the wrong cell-line, contaminate your sample, and the list goes on. Further, your  results may simply not work as hypothesized, or your idea may just not reflect the whole picture. And so, you come to appreciate how hard and persistently researchers have to work to contribute too our scientific knowledge. As I learned quickly, most of the time an idea gets contradicted, a question goes unanswered, etc. And as a result, you can go weeks, or months on a project and may not make much progress toward a new understanding. So, it is very humbling …

And what do you most enjoy about research?

I guess it is those instances where things start to make sense, after a long while of persistent work. After doing all these little tasks or working out a good model of some process, it is very satisfying to tackle the same problem using different techniques, different software and hardware and seeing them coalesce into a coherent picture. For someone with a constantly chirping curiosity, this is a very sought after feeling. It is very similar to a puzzle is that you start to get bits of information from many different tests and then fit them together to build a larger, comprehensive and true picture of a given focus.

One of the things that I spoke with Dr. Hearing about was that I wanted to work on a project where I could be exposed to many different techniques and lab protocols. I have gotten a good handle on a variety of common wet lab equipment, protocols, software tools, etc. and have become comfortable with some really useful lab techniques that will be applicable for the future. There is some sort of a thrill in conducting the process of questioning, hypothesizing based on past literature, designing experiments, and brainstorming ideas and just going for it. The process can be difficult at times, but I think it builds a kind of persistency in you after a while that makes it worth every minute.

Have you enjoyed the interactions with your mentor /lab colleagues?

Dr. Hearing is a great mentor: he always tries to explain everything clearly, and you always know that he is there to help, so that’s makes the initial learning process much smoother.  And I am very lucky enough to have very helpful and willing graduate PhD students and post-doctorates. When I have questions about anything lab related, they are always there to offer their insight and experience, which has been much more of a help than I anticipated.  

How do you think being involved with research has complemented your academic coursework and your education overall ?

A lot of the topics we learn in class are related to what I'm studying in the lab, so sometimes I come to class with a “primed” sort of view…where I can apply my lab experiences to a given lecture, which naturally makes it a lot easier to understand. And it goes both ways. Sometimes I will learn in class about a lab technique or idea that will help me pose interesting questions or design experiments, since much of this process is building on theory that I have learned from class or past literature.

What are your long term plans?

I have always wanted to become a physician, since I strive for everyone to experience wellbeing and minimize their suffering, and illness is a common factor that prevents people from freely enjoying their lives. However, I really do not want to lose touch with research and doing science. My most immediate plan is to graduate and then apply to either an MSTP or MD/PhD program. In the far future, I would really like to be a practicing physician while conducting research and mentor others. Though I am not yet sure what medicine I would like to specialize in.

What advice would you give about research ?

Research is a nice step away from being in class, a change in perspective for a student studying science; it brings a lot of diversity to your educational experience. In terms of getting your foot in the door, I would suggest simply reaching out to professors whose research excites you. But you do need to apply yourself, and not be shy to show your interests. The PIs that run these labs are extremely busy so you do need to be patient and persistent. I found myself sending out many emails to inquire about openings for lab positions on campus. But I can assure you that it is worth the time and work.

I always had a general eagerness to know about how the world works, what feels like an innate and inextinguishable curiosity, and research is really one of the ways I fulfill that. For someone that has an interest in science or just a curiosity for learning, I really recommend it. You will likely end up meeting some great and influential people, and have some fun along the way. So I would say, go for it!